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County Kilkenny :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

County Kilkenny

An ariel view of modern day Kilkenny.

An ariel view of modern day Kilkenny.

Kilkenny, perhaps the largest portion of Ossory, was reported to have a large amount of heretics, mainly as sorcerers and magic users. When Bishop Ledrede visited Kilkenny in 1324 and heard word about this he immediately set out to rid his diocese of these practices. Witchcraft was labeled a heresy around the 9th century, and Ledrede was determined to eliminate these heresies from his bishopric once and for all on the basis of Church laws and his bull, Super illius specula. Ledrede’s bull detailed the crime of witchcraft, specifically relating practices of magic to the demonic. Historically, magic and spiritual healing were accepted in Ireland as ways to call upon fairies. These fairies were not necessarily thought of as bad creatures, but more so creatures in between good and bad, and thus not accepted into either Heaven or Hell. Instead, they remained in a state where they could make themselves present in the mortal world when they saw fit. There was no link between the spiritual world and the Devil in Kilkenny, or Ossory altogether, until Bishop Ledrede so adamantly enforced the anti-witchcraft beliefs of the Church.

Bishop Ledrede immediately investigated these claims of heresy in his district, and exposed his diocese to the inquisitorial process. The information gained from his inquiries lead the bishop to a few “’pestiferous persons’” believed to be headed by Dame Alice Kyteler. At this time Alice Kyteler was married to her fourth husband, but had acquired wealth and status from her first three husbands, all of which deceased during their marriages to her. Ledrede believed that together with William Outlaw, her son from her first marriage, Alice Kyteler practiced sorcery, and was thus a heretic. The initial claims against Alice came from those in town suspicious of the circumstances leading to her previous husbands’ deaths, and the way in which she and her son were able to acquire much of her husbands’ inheritances. These accusations mainly came from Alice’s stepchildren out of jealousy, anger and suspicion to why their fathers left their inheritances to Alice and William Outlaw instead of them. When they heard Bishop Ledrede’s stance on witchcraft they came to believe Alice must have been using sorcery to acquire this wealth and reported her for performing maleficium among other charges.

Because Bishop Ledrede so zealously exhibited an urge for reform and obedience to the Roman Church, Alice Kyteler’s stepchildren knew their accusations would be taken seriously and immediate action would be taken against their stepmother. Ledrede did just that, and took the case directly to the king’s chancellor in Ireland, believing that his ecclesiastical clout would ensure his request for arrest. However, the king’s chancellor happened to be Roger Outlaw, a relative of Alice’s first husband and William Outlaw. Roger Outlaw had no interest in listening to this foreign Bishop trying to use his ecclesiastical authority to intervene in the secular courts, and trying to impose the issue of witch-hunting in Kilkenny, an issue that had never troubled Ireland before.

Roger Outlaw was not Alice Kyteler and William Outlaw’s only connection in the secular court system. Their high social status associated them with many noblemen, the king’s chancellor and the Seneschal of Kilkenny, Arnold le Poer, among them. Despite urging Ledrede to drop the charges, actions had to be taken against Alice and William. Roger Outlaw did all he could to prevent their arrests, and insisted that in order to be arrested they would first have to be excommunicated for 40 days. Both Outlaw and le Poer took action to protect Alice and William, urging the people of Kilkenny to question not the circumstances of Alice and William’s good fortune, but instead to question the credibility of Bishop Ledrede’s claims. Le Poer ordered the arrest of Ledrede even though church officials were not supposed to be arrested by the state, and sent a messenger through Kilkenny and it’s surrounding areas trying to find any incriminating information about Ledrede. Le Poer hoped this would put an end to the accusations against Alice Kyteler and William Outlaw once and for all.

Riddell, William Renwick. “The First Execution for Witchcraft in Ireland.” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Crimology 7 (1917): 828. accessed October 31, 2014. doi:10.2307/1133665.

Sacred-texts. “Irish Witchcraft and Demonology: Chapter II: A.D. 1324: Dame Alice Kyteler, the Sorceress of Kilkenny.” Accessed December 12, 2014. http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/iwd/iwd03.htm.

Williams, Bernadette. “The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler.” History Ireland 2 (1994): 21. Accessed October 31, 2014. url: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27724208.

Image: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3b/Kilkenny_2,_Ireland.jpg

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